The shifting of power to‘the people’ hasn’t changed its tendency to corrupt

Max Saltsman April 18 1977

The shifting of power to‘the people’ hasn’t changed its tendency to corrupt

Max Saltsman April 18 1977

The shifting of power to‘the people’ hasn’t changed its tendency to corrupt

Max Saltsman

There is a great “cover-up” going on in Ottawa. It is not the cover-up of a Watergate or our own pale Canadian imitation, the Sky Shops affair; nor is it a cover-up restricted to the government, but one in which all parties, MPS and public servants participate. It is not even a conspiracy in the sense that those participating are aware of what they are doing in a conscious manner. But rather it is part of the adversary nature of politics, the prevailing liberalism of all parties, the loyal bureaucracies and the supporting militant encouragement of the Press Gallery.

The cover-up is not new. There has always been a gap between any set of facts and how the politician selects facts to make a partisan argument. What, however, is more recent is that the gap between what is happening and what the politician says is happening is being widened to such an extent as to make an intelligent approach to solving our problems almost impossible.

Who is parliament covering up for? The “Big Boys”? No, because just about everyone hates and distrusts them, whether it’s Bell Canada, the chartered banks, or any other of our packaged villains. The “big ones” come in for more than their share of parliamentary and media lumps, and not without cause. The cover-up is about ourselves—the little people—and that is why we can’t talk about it. In a demoncracy, MPS can get elected without the banks or Bell Canada’s support, but they can’t get elected without the support of farmers, fishermen, trade unionists, collectors of unemployment insurance, or immigrants who want their relatives in.

I first saw this process in action on a committee of the House of Commons that sat for weeks investigating the rise in food prices. They were wasted weeks. The first witnesses, officials from the Department of Agriculture, could have given us our answer, which I’m sure they had, in a half hour. All they had to do was answer a simple question about the relationship between the price at the farm gate and the price at the supermarket. They said they had no such information and could make no such comparisons.

The committee, after weeks of following blind alleys, finally compared the farm gate and the supermarket price on a graph. The lines followed each other like shadows. The price of meat had increased because the farmer was getting higher prices for his production. What the committee should have had the courage to say was “yes, the farmer is getting more, but food has been too cheap in Canada at the

farmer’s expense for too long and he is entitled to more.” Did that appear in the report? It certainly did not. After weeks of blaming packers and supermarkets, the report had nothing to say, and this experience has been repeated on every committee investigating the rise in consumer food prices. Nobody attacks a farmer.

The Transportation Committee of the House of Commons investigated the decline of rail passenger services in Canada.

Every witness before the committee blamed the government, the CPR, the CNR. One witness representing a western town recounted how the community was not satisfied with an earlier rail passenger service and came to the conclusion that the way to smarten up the railway was to give it some competition. The town brought in two bus companies, a feeder airline, built a new highway and then complained when the railway applied to discontinue its service because of passenger loss.

A rail union complained about the loss of jobs on passenger services and no one asked the union about its archaic adherence to the “100-mile limit” as a day’s work, and no one asked how passenger service could be viable when the union contract called for payment for 30 crew changes from Halifax to Vancouver. A rule made 50 years ago to protect workers when trains traveled 10 miles an hour lingers on to inhibit public transit. The committee, however, continued with its criticism of the government, the CNR, and the CPR.

The examples can be multiplied and

when you get through with them you find almost every interest group and region with its own MP or lobbyist determined that no bad report about his constituents will emerge. Not only the politicians but the media as well are reluctant to attack the sacred cow of “everyman.”

From 1969 to 1975, real after-tax income in Canada grew significantly faster than in any other country in the world. Yet in the speeches in the House of Commons no hint of this emerges: When the government tries to make this point, it is ignored by the media. Only now, with the publication of a report by the C. D. Howe Research Institute, is this information receiving public attention.

We are in danger of becoming a nation of well-off “bitchers,” province against province, group against group, region against region. The complaining might not do us much harm if our society was united in other ways. But at this time, when the whole idea of Canada’s survival is on our minds, can we afford to be running around with our little hammer and nails busily nailing down the lid on the national coffin by refusing to see ourselves as our own worst enemies? And what makes the problem all the more difficult is that MPS, with their handsome salaries, expense allowances and carefully protected retirement incomes, are in a difficult position to play Savonarola.

Government and opposition have never run more scared to public pressure. Not the pressure of the general public, as witness the decision on capital punishment, but rather the electoral power of one-issue groups who, because of their cohesion, are able to exercise disproportionate influence to get their own way. In the bad old days we used to call them lobbies. Today the euphemism is “participatory democracy.”

The process may sound very democratic, but is it? Not everyone has equal power in society, and the pressure that is put on government is usually of the organized and group kind, with the result that some groups get more of their share than, in my view, they are entitled to. This has always been a characteristic of the market sector and is now becoming common in legislatures as well.

Representation, dissent, even rhetoric are a necessary part of society, but shouldn’t the debate be more closely related to the fact and to the many whose voices are not organized?

Max Saltsman, MP for Waterloo-Cambridge, recently resigned his post as financial critic for the NDP, in part for reasons reflected in this column